Scientists advise and governments govern

Such is the standing of “Chief Scientific Advisers” within the UK political establishment, one is more likely to see their names in print and on TV news interview captions when they personally are the story, rather than the advice proffered by them to government. In recent years there have been some outstanding scientists and engineers seconded to government, but the way in which their service is abused is an indictment on the state of evidence-based government in Britain.

Given this sorry situation, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been looking at how to strengthen the role of CSAs, and today publishes its report on their function within government. The report includes a range of recommendations, the aim of which is to ensure that executive decisions are supported by the best available science and engineering advice.

The Lords say that the current CSA system has much to commend it, but certain aspects of it are cause for concern. Given the strength of the criticisms laid out in the report, this is something of a diplomatic understatement. There are some serious flaws in the system as it currently operates, and one wonders why any self-respecting science or engineering grandee would accept such a poisoned chalice. Yet they do, proving that possession of a PhD is no guarantor of wisdom.

Take the way in which CSAs are shafted by seasoned hacks employing some of the oldest tricks in the book of realpolitik. One former Home Office adviser described how he first heard of proposals to introduce biometric ID cards on the Today programme. Another complained of a lack of access to ministers when he was supposed to be providing input to an offshore wind energy policy.

The recommendations of the committee are on the whole sensible. Advisers should be recruited from outside the civil service, so that they have good standing within the research community, and cannot be dismissed as yes-men with copper-bottomed pension plans. Advisers should also be hired on a part-time basis, so that they continue to work at the academic coalface. Appointments should be at a level that guarantees direct access to ministers, with no spin-doctors or permanent secretaries to get in the way and distort or suppress advice. CSAs should also have their own budget, and the authority to subcontract and commission advice as they see fit.

So far so good, but then I spot one recommendation that will surely never fly. The committee says that CSAs should be given a seat on departmental boards as of right, together with a formal role in policy submission sign-offs. This would ensure that they have oversight of their departments’ work. Indeed it would, which is why neither the mandarins nor politicians will stand for it.

Advisers are there to advise, and leave the politicians and their executive agents to do the grown-up stuff. That is how the system works, and there is something to be said for it. One could argue that giving CSAs executive power might compromise their authority as advisers, if not reduce them to the ethical level of career politicians.

Civil servants are the untouchables in the equation, and will block anything which threatens their control over ministers. As for politicians, they have everything to lose and everything to gain. The last thing they want is quasi-impartial experts getting in the way of their ideological agendas.